|Spy cameras fail to focus on street crime
The Washington Times | August 13, 2006
By Matthew Cella
Surveillance cameras like those authorized by the D.C. Council for police
investigations and now being put in place have shown limited success in
decreasing violent crime in other cities.
Baltimore, for example, set up about 80 cameras
in May 2005 in high-crime neighborhoods. Volunteers and retired law-enforcement
personnel monitor the images in real time, but the cameras have not helped
put criminals behind bars.
"Generally, the State's Attorney's Office has not
found them to be a useful tool to prosecutors," office spokeswoman Margaret
Burns said. "They're good for circumstantial evidence, but it definitely
isn't evidence we find useful to convict somebody of a crime."
Miss Burns said Baltimore prosecutors kept detailed
statistics from the first nine months of the camera program. Most of the
500 cases forwarded to prosecutors were quality-of-life crimes, she said,
and 40 percent of those cases were dropped by prosecutors or dismissed
by the courts.
"We have not used any footage to resolve a violent-crime
case," she said.
Miss Burns said police sometimes misidentify suspects
because the cameras produce "grainy" and "blurry" images.
"We have had that happen more than once," she said.
The D.C. Council, faced with a sharp increase in
crime, passed emergency legislation July 19 that allows the Metropolitan
Police Department to use surveillance cameras in neighborhoods as part
of an emergency plan.
D.C. workers on Thursday began installing the first
four of an expected 47 cameras throughout the city. Officials said the
four cameras are temporary and will be replaced by permanent ones later
this month. About 24 cameras will be deployed by the end of August, and
23 more will be added in September, police said.
Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey is required to notify
only two persons about plans to place a camera in any given neighborhood:
an advisory neighborhood commissioner and the appropriate council member.
The cameras will operate 24 hours a day, but police will review the images
only when a known crime may have been recorded.
Chicago deployed a few dozen cameras in neighborhoods
in July 2003. Authorities there captured their first drug transaction 19
months later, in February 2005.
Police arrested three suspects and confiscated 12
packets of heroin. However, the cameras have not helped in criminal investigations.
"From my perspective, I would love it if we had footage of the murderer
leaving the house, but that hasn't happened yet," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman
for Chicago's Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which
administers and monitors the 170-camera network.
Police in San Francisco said a camera paid off in
an investigation for the first time in June, when they arrested a man in
connection with a shooting in April.
Nine months after the first cameras were installed
in neighborhoods, a camera captured the image of a man getting out of a
car. The man subsequently shot at another man and missed, injuring a 13-year-old
girl. The image was not recorded, but police said the camera was key to
Surveillance cameras also have generated headlines
for the wrong reasons.
In April 2005, a San Francisco police officer was
suspended from the department for using surveillance cameras to ogle women
at San Francisco International Airport.
New York officials say surveillance cameras in public-housing
projects have led to substantial decreases in crime.
Written policies and random audits help guard the
system against abuse, but that proved ineffective when the tape of a 22-year-old
man who fatally shot himself in the lobby of a housing project in March
2004 surfaced on a pornographic Web site.
Critics argue that cameras only push criminals into
unobserved areas. A University of Cincinnati study in 2000 concluded that
surveillance cameras have a short-term deterrent effect, which likely would
increase when the public is notified about their presence.
Cameras in Baltimore, Chicago, New York and San
Francisco are labeled as police property. No police department logos are
affixed to the D.C. cameras that were in place before the recently crime
D.C. police spokesman Kevin Morison said police
are required to post signs indicating that an area is under surveillance.
He could not say whether such notification would be required under a clause
dealing with "exigent" circumstances.
Mr. Morison said several neighborhood leaders have
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the District-based
Electronic Privacy Information Center, said he has heard neighborhood leaders
express approval of the cameras at hearings but is not sure whether most
residents share that support.
"It's very difficult to get a clear read on whether
this is something that residents really want," Mr. Rotenberg said. "I don't
think people understand that if you put these cameras in residential communities,
you're talking about a telescopic lens that can zoom in and a 360-degree
casing that can look into your bedroom."